Are you there, God?
It’s a common question for believers, skeptics and seekers alike. And according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, religious uncertainty may be on the rise. In Pew’s 2014 survey of over 35,000 families from all 50 states, 63 percent of those surveyed said their belief in God was absolutely certain, down from 71 percent in 2007.
Many Buncombe County residents consider themselves religious. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, 122,565 Buncombe County residents identified as adhering to a religion in 2010. Since the county’s population was 238,822 in that same year, at least half of Buncombe inhabitants are among the faithful.
Where do people turn when that faith runs dry and they start to question what they believe? A number of Asheville-based faith leaders say those who experience doubt aren’t alone and freely admit to struggling with faith in their own lives.
“If you could walk into any room and ask, ‘Anybody in here ever struggle with faith?’ — if people felt free to raise their hands, I bet more people would raise their hands than not,” says Russell Jones, a pastoral counselor in Asheville.
The Rev. Mark Ward, lead minister at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, agrees. “I think that’s part of everyone’s life. I think doubt is a central part of belief. It’s like yin and yang,” he says.
It seems only natural that crisis in life breeds a crisis of faith, and Jones and Ward say that traumatic experiences and loss are among the top reasons people question their beliefs. “You lose somebody you love, maybe you prayed for them to get well and they didn’t. Maybe they were taken from you too young. Maybe you lose your job,” says Jones as he cites some of the reasons religious faith can be transformed from a source of comfort into one of turmoil.
But those periods of doubt are also seen as opportunities by faith leaders. “The most important thing for anyone experiencing a crisis of faith, no matter the tradition, is it’s OK. It’s OK to question, to doubt, to explore new ideas,” says Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Asheville’s Congregation Beth Israel. He says the Jewish tradition welcomes scrutiny as a tool for advancing understanding and belief.
From his faith’s perspective, Goldstein says, questioning is normal. “In American Judaism, a substantial portion of people identify as agnostic. An atheist might define them as a believer, and a believer might define them as an atheist,” he explains. “If you don’t doubt what you believe, then you don’t actually believe what you profess to believe, because doubt is a natural outcome of belief.”
Ward sees the struggle as a crucial part of a person’s spiritual development. “Your doubt informs and deepens your belief because it forces you to dig deeper and think harder about where your core lies. … I think it’s important. It’s an instrument to deepening your faith,” he says.
“I find my own sense of faith isn’t a fixed thing,” Ward says. “It evolves as I evolve. I gain new understanding, perspectives that shape it. That’s healthy. That’s part of being a human being, part of the spiritual journey.”
Congregation con job
Cheri Britton Honeycutt was raised as a Southern Baptist but now “completely rejects it.” A pivotal moment came when she witnessed the sexual assault of a family member. Other members of her congregation looked the other way. “Everybody in the church, people in leadership, knew about [the incident], yet nobody ever came to talk to us about it. Nobody,” she says.
Britton Honeycutt says the trauma alone was difficult to deal with, but it was her sense of isolation that made her question her belief. “I was really disillusioned that in a time of crisis these people weren’t there. I mislabeled it as God wasn’t there, but I was 17. And the truth was, it was the people who were uncomfortable,” she notes.
Sexual abuse also played a role in Asheville resident Dennis Shipman’s decision to leave the nondenominational charismatic church he had belonged to for 20 years. After he revealed the incident, the reaction of other members was far from supportive. “One of the worst things you can do to a survivor of sexual abuse is not believe them,” he says. “In the darkest hour of my life, when I tried to confide in people I thought were part of my life … some of them responded saying, ‘Do you expect me to believe that?’ And others even literally made fun of me,” says Shipman.
“Where was God then?” he asks. “Why wasn’t I being protected?” Lacking good answers to those hard questions, Shipman says he cut ties with the church and his faith. “If there is a God, he wouldn’t have any involvement in activities such as that, so I just separated myself from all of it,” he says.
Sometimes a loss of faith is triggered by more abstract questioning. That’s what Karen Richardson Dunn, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a member of First Congregational UCC of Asheville, says she experienced as a younger person. “I lost my faith altogether as a teenager because I could not find a satisfying answer to how God, a loving God, could exist in the face of the great suffering of the world,” she says. “I wish I could say that I’ve found the perfect response to that question, and I have made headway, but it continues to haunt me on difficult days.”
Dark night of the soul
Jones says his own struggles with faith help him counsel others going through similar experiences. However, he warns against telling people how to view their own conflict. “I think what people need when they are having a spiritual struggle isn’t someone to tell them, ‘Look, here’s how you should think about this differently.’ They need someone to come alongside and say, ‘I get what you’re saying and feeling,’” he says. “Sometimes religion can want to give answers too quickly.”
Ward agrees that faith leaders should resist the urge to offer one-size-fits-all solutions. “If you are struggling with belief, I’m not going to hand you a book and think it will fix it. I think the way you grow and deepen your spirituality is in conversation,” he says. “That’s why here we focus on small group work where you can have those conversations and reveal that personal doubt and questioning you have.”
“I don’t hold myself as any kind of model or person who has it all figured out,” says Ward.
Goldstein says he believes those in doubt need to stay plugged in. “For people who don’t believe and don’t have faith, being able to participate in the debate keeps them involved in the tradition,” he says. “You’ll find many people in synagogues who don’t believe in God, or don’t observe the traditions, but they are engaged in the tradition through the questions. And through their cynicism, there is still an entry point.”
And Richardson Dunn advises people to lean into their doubts with open eyes. “Do not be afraid to question, or struggle, or even to disbelieve,” she says. “Rather, allow yourself to be open and mindful in each moment as it comes, to the still, small voice of divine presence. Just listen. Closely.”
Ultimately, Jones says there can be unexpected value in a crisis of faith; being outside your comfort zone, he says, can lead to growth. “As much as you can tolerate it, don’t rush through it. Don’t waste the experience. If you’re going to go through this misery, at least get something good from it,” he advises.
Closed doors, open windows
As with any crisis, there is eventually resolution. For some, it’s a renewed sense of faith and commitment to God. For others, it’s a time to say goodbye.
Jones says that in his experience most people come out with faith intact. “More often than not, people get reoriented, recalibrated,” he says. “Life bumps them out and they’re disoriented for a while, but [then they] find a way to re-establish equilibrium.”
Richardson Dunn says many times people conclude it’s the organization that let them down, not God. “People don’t tend to leave church over their loss of faith in God, but over disillusionment with the actions and attitudes of people within the church or within their church’s denomination.”
For Britton Honeycutt, becoming a mother helped catalyze a return to the church after some 20 years away. “I, for whatever reason, was really called to go to the UUCOC. I jokingly said I just needed to make peace with Jesus,” she says.
Belonging to her new congregation has helped Britton Honeycutt come to terms with her past. “I don’t resonate with the way I was raised, but I’m not bitter about it. People teach what they believe,” she says. “There is something powerful with community, turning things over, knowing that I don’t have control.”
Britton Honeycutt offers advice for those who have been hurt by the church. “I would encourage people to separate out the people that created the crisis and realize that people are flawed,” she says. “If we judge whether God is real based on how people behave, we’ll all be in a crisis of faith.”
However, Shipman says he’s not yet ready to embrace religion. “I live in a place I call the gray area. I’m not sure right now, but I’m at peace with that,” he says. Shipman says he’s made progress over the past few years and has been able to release some of his anger.
While not looking to rejoin a congregation, Shipman says a small part of him is receptive to God. “My eyes are going to have to be opened to God, by God. That door is open,” he says. “I can’t see where this would be God or Jesus’ fault, so I’m not faulting them. That’s why the door is open.”
“The Bible says he’ll leave the 99 and go after the one, so that’s where the door is open. If that’s true, he’ll come get me. If not, then I’ll remain in the gray area.”
And for Goldstein, doubting means you’re still seeking, “As long as you continue to question and try on different perspectives, then you are still a part of the conversation.”